“The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
What is Mindfulness?
Many of us get caught up in living mindlessly. Such a feeling can be likened to those times when we make a car journey from one point to another. On arrival we might be shocked to discover that we have no real recollection of the journey, just as though we drove it on ‘automatic pilot’. Imaging studies demonstrate that our brains are hardwired to default to task completion, ‘filling in the gaps’ and getting us from A to B. Whilst this can be helpful in practical tasks and problem solving, it is less so in solving the ‘problem’ of emotional distress. Our minds engage in rumination, ‘why do I feel like this?, ‘what did I do wrong?’ rather than allowing the feeling the space to pass.
In contrast mindfulness is grounded in experience and has at its heart being rather than doing. It fully engages all our senses, the body and the mind and a compassionate awareness of what is happening in the internal and external world as it unfolds on a moment-to-moment basis.
The teachings and meditation practices of mindfulness in a therapeutic context have their roots in Buddhism. Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali term ‘Sati’ or ‘Smrti’ in Sanskrit which is often translated as ‘bare attention’ but many argue is more accurately interpreted as ‘remembering’ or ‘recollection’. The latter reflects the ethical and moral teachings of Buddhism where students continually ‘remembered’ and bore witness to the detail of experience in the cultivation of wholesome states of mind.
Mindfulness in Therapy
In the current literature mindfulness tends to be described as encompassing three aspects:
- Intentionally paying attention to moment by moment experiences as they unfold in the internal and external world
- Noticing habitual reactions and patterns of thinking such as attachment or aversion
- Cultivating a different way of responding to events and reactions to them by developing curiosity, compassion, non-judgment, patience, trust, non-striving and acceptance.
In a clinical context Mindfulness Skills are taught as a core component of a number of therapeutic approaches. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
MBCT is a NICE recommended treatment programme for individuals who have experienced 3 or more episodes of depression as an effective prevention against future relapse. However, MBCT can be beneficial for a wide range of mental health issues.
Where appropriate I work with clients in therapy teaching a range of meditation skills which encourage a greater awareness of the breath, our body and other sensory experiences as well as learning to recognise habitual patterns of mind that lead to an escalation of emotions such as anxiety, sadness or despair. We learn to step back from our thoughts rather than being so closely identified with them that we cannot see the wood for the trees. We also learn ways of bringing mindful awareness into other aspects of daily life, not just when sitting to meditate.
When considering whether such an approach might be helpful for you don’t be put off by the belief that you have a restless mind and would never be able to meditate. There is no need to clear your mind of thoughts or to be still and peaceful, we can practice relaxation exercises for that purpose. Mindfulness allows you to have a point of focus that you continually return to (remember) such as your breath or your body whenever your mind wanders. Whenever the mind wanders we patiently and persistently return to our focus. This ‘mind wandering’ teaches us a great deal about the nature of our thoughts. Whenever we are fully focused in the present we are not bound by anxiety, worry, regret or sadness and the possibility of a greater sense of wellbeing opens up.